Cutting FoodShare Isn’t The Answer

By: Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Milwaukee County Child Support Services Director Jim Sullivan

Over the past six years, Milwaukee County has worked hard to empower more people with the skills and support they need to live a better life.

One area where the results of these efforts are highly visible is in our Child Support Services department. Child support collections are up, which is good news for kids, but we’ve also piloted a new fatherhood program that is a national model, lifting children and families out of poverty by helping fathers get the training they need to provide for their kids. In the past three years this program has helped more than one thousand fathers receive employment services and more than half of them actually secure a job placement.

We are concerned that the proposal in Governor Walker’s budget which ties child support compliance to FoodShare benefits will have an adverse impact on our efforts (this item is listed in the LFB summary, DHS, Item 5, pages 228–229). Milwaukee is the state’s largest child support services provider, and we believe this proposal will have serious implications on the health and well-being of our children and families.

Sanctioning FoodShare will not help Child Support — Wisconsin is already a national leader in Child Support, ranking 2nd in the nation for collections of current support. Milwaukee County Child Support Services (CSS), with 126,000 cases, approximately one-third of all child support cases in the state, is a major contributor to that success. We are very concerned that using the Child Support program to automatically terminate FoodShare benefits for potentially tens of thousands of fathers in Milwaukee County will make it substantially harder, not easier, to collect child support in Milwaukee County.

This will result not only in economic stress and food instability for thousands of families, it will also drive child support performance measures downward in the largest child support agency in the state, pulling down state wide performance measures and making it harder for Wisconsin to earn its share of performance-based federal funding.

Using the Child Support program to remove thousands of low income fathers off of FoodShare also makes it harder for the Child Support agency to maintain contact with those men. This contact is necessary to do the great work that Milwaukee County CSS has done with our New Pathways for Fathers and Families program, which connects dads with their kids and with work. Earlier this month, state Department of Children and Families Secretary Eloise Anderson appeared before the Joint Finance Committee and lamented the sad history of social services programs failing to work with dads. Using Child Support to eliminate FoodShare benefits for indigent fathers will make it harder, not easier, to get these men connected to their jobs and their kids, and actively paying their child support obligations.

The proposed budget change spends nearly a half million dollars to create an automatic link from the Child Support KIDS system, to the CARES system, for purposes of automatically triggering sanctions for FoodShare when a non-custodial parent reaches 91 days behind in their child support order. This is too expensive and takes away the discretion of county child support agencies to determine who may be appropriate to sanction.

FoodShare benefits are used by families in need all across the state of Wisconsin. Particularly in Milwaukee County, where we have high concentrations of poverty disproportionately affecting the African American and Latino community, many families rely on these benefits to keep food on the table. Linking Food Share sanctions to Child Support non-compliance will hurt the people most in need.

There are a range of enforcement tools available to a Child Support agency to compel Child Support cooperation; taking away food security should not be one of them.

This is the second in a series of posts on the state budget.